CALIFORNIA, USA — Irma Cervantes could barely afford the $750 monthly rent for the converted garage apartment she lives in with her children in East Los Angeles when she worked full time at a laundromat.
When the pandemic shut down non-essential businesses, Cervantes was out of a job. Then she got sick with long COVID-19.
Now she owes 10 months rent, she said, and is trying to pay it down. Her three children, ages 19 to 23, are helping by working part-time jobs.
Her landlord has increased demands for payment and wants her out, Cervantes said. And on March 31, L.A. County’s tenant eviction protections are set to expire.
“I’m left thinking, what will happen when there aren’t any protections,” Cervantes said. “What will I do with my kids? We can’t pay $1,600 rent.”
Across California nearly 600,000 people owe a total of $2.1 billion in back rent, researchers say. In Los Angeles city and county, nearly 200,000 people owe more than half a billion dollars in unpaid rent.
Many tenants, like Cervantes, are on edge because state protections and rental assistance across the state diminished, and now local protections like L.A. County’s are phasing out. Housing rights advocates and attorneys say eviction lawsuits already are rising in the state’s most populous county; they’re bracing for even greater spikes once county pandemic protections go.
“Because both state and local eviction protections enacted during the pandemic have come to an end, it’s an even bigger crisis,” said state Sen. María Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, during a recent press conference.
California’s statewide tenant relief and protections ended in June 2022. The pandemic-era programs had shielded many tenants harmed by COVID-19 from eviction and offered financial assistance to help them pay back rent.
Since then some city and county local measures kicked in to keep tenants in homes. Los Angeles County protections from evictions stepped in for city residents on Jan. 31.
L.A. County’s tenant protections don’t prevent landlords from filing eviction lawsuits, which are called unlawful detainer suits. But the protections do give certain low-income tenants a defense in court if their rent was late between July 2022 and March 31 of this year due to the pandemic.
Beginning April 1, landlords will be able to evict tenants for a variety of reasons, but they’ll have to give tenants 30 days’ notice.
However housing justice groups may be making headway in their push to extend some tenant protections.
County supervisors Lindsey P. Horvath and Hilda Solis are expected to propose a motion today that would protect tenants from no-fault evictions until March 2024. If it’s approved by a majority of the five supervisors, tenants who are paying rent could not be evicted, even if they had a pet or a person move in during the pandemic in violation of their lease.
Horvath said as a renter she recognizes that thousands would be at risk of losing housing after March 31 without this change, which is in keeping with L.A. Mayor Karen Bass’ efforts to reduce homelessness.
“If we are going to solve this crisis, we must stop the inflow of people falling into homelessness by keeping them in the housing they are already in,” Horvath said in a statement.
Patchwork of protection
Solis said it’s the county’s duty, as “the safety net for our most vulnerable,” to protect people from losing their homes.
Once countywide protections expire, tenant protections will return to a patchwork of local measures in some of the county’s 88 cities, leaving many renters without protection.
Already in L.A. County unlawful detainer filings for eviction have surged over the prior two years, when there were more layers of protection for tenants.
In 2020 and 2021, there were 13,796 and 12,646 unlawful detainer filings, respectively — record lows in what had been a steady downward trend in eviction filings since the 2008 recession, said Kyle Nelson, an eviction researcher at UCLA.
But last year there were 34,398 unlawful detainer filings in L.A. County. That’s not quite at 2019 levels, when there were 40,572 eviction filings, but experts expect another jump after the first back-rent deadline.
Even before state protections expired, housing analysts worried about a “tsunami” of evictions. Nelson said he now thinks that was an overestimation, but “we are seeing the wave.”
It could vary by city, though.
“I would expect the spikes to happen when the rental debt is due,” he said, ”because in various moratoria policies there are different windows for when debt for different periods of time is due.”
The National Equity Atlas, a collaboration between Oakland research group Policy Link and the USC Equity Research Institute, estimates that 199,520 households in L.A. County are behind on rent, by a total of $542 million.
Its estimates are based on the Census Household Pulse Survey, which measures the pandemic’s impact on families.
Selena Tan, who leads Policy Link’s racial equity data lab, said rental debt estimates are likely lower than reality, partly because the Pulse survey responses represent a single point in time and may leave out renters who drop in and out of debt.
Advocates say the best remedy for evictions are programs that pay down rental debt for tenants, such as the Statewide Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which awarded more than $4.6 billion to renters before it expired in March 2022.
Although the program helped renters and landlords during the pandemic, it also rejected many applicants seemingly without reason. Three community organizations sued the state last year, arguing the rejections were discriminatory and vague. A judge partially agreed.
“There were all kinds of problems with the way it was administered,” said Christina Livingston, executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute. “But for the people it helped, it really did keep them from homelessness,”
Alliance leaders had hoped to persuade lawmakers to keep emergency rental assistance going as a way to eliminate tenant debt, Livingston said, but “there isn’t a will for that.”
Assemblymember Kate Sanchez, a Republican from Murietta, said blanket eviction protections and bureaucracy make it difficult for landlords to collect past-due rent. And state and local programs haven’t provided enough support to struggling mom-and-pop landlords.
“My office and my Republican colleagues have been helping these small property owners navigate Sacramento’s horrible bureaucracy to get the payments they need to pay their mortgages and keep their investments,” Sanchez told CalMatters. “The state should not tip the scale in favor of renters without providing adequate support to our mom-and-pop property owners.”
There still are some tenant supports in Los Angeles County.
Tenants at risk for eviction can still tap federal and state funds to pay back rent. But first they need to get an attorney through Stay Housed L.A., a partnership of agencies and legal service providers, said Javier Beltran, deputy director of the Housing Rights Center, which administers the funds.
In L.A. city, new tenant protections impose a threshold on how much a tenant must owe before they can be evicted — one month’s “fair market” rent, which in 2023 is about $1,747 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Landlords who increase rent by more than the state cap, which is now at 10% — 5% plus inflation — will have to pay relocation assistance to the tenant, an L.A. city ordinance states.
Groups representing landlords have sued the city and county over these protections, including the L.A.’s most recent ordinance.
Renters vs. owners
Landlords have struggled to collect thousands — or millions — of dollars of rental debt. Tenant protections and regulations limit garnishing wages, said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartments Association of Greater Los Angeles.
“Over 80% of landlords in California are independent owners, mom and pops,” he said.
“They got crucified the last three years at the hands of the government. The government continues to use landlords as a scapegoat for the unhoused we see on our city sidewalks every day, because they haven’t come up with solutions to that problem.”
Several mom-and-pop landlords said privately that they would prefer to compromise with tenants rather than evict them. But going so long without rental income puts a strain on their finances. Some added that government rental assistance didn’t go far enough to pay the bills.
Tenant advocates countered that lobbying by landlord associations and campaign donations from the real estate industry make it difficult to pass tenant-friendly legislation, such as a law establishing a legal right to counsel for tenants in court.
In L.A., organizers have made progress with the city council. Recently a motion to explore establishing a right to legal counsel in eviction proceedings passed in the city council’s housing and homelessness committee.
The challenge will be finding funding sources, said Pablo Estupiñan, who directs Strategic Actions for a Just Economy’s counsel campaign.
Housing advocates want a recently approved one-time transfer tax to help pay for eviction representation, he said. That tax will be tacked onto real estate sales. It also would pay for affordable housing and renters’ education and outreach.
But housing advocates are still focusing on the state to strengthen tenant protections.
The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute is prioritizing Durazo’s placeholder Senate Bill 567, Livingston said.
The bill, when it is complete, would expand the California Tenant Protection Act of 2019 by further limiting rent increases, closing some loopholes that allow for abuse of eviction rules, and improving enforcement of housing rights, Durazo said.
“The government response to addressing this crisis has been focused primarily on rehousing people after they lose their housing, and this is important,” Durazo said, “but it needs to be together with an effort to prevent people from becoming houseless.”
But the existing tenant protections in L.A. city and proposed changes to state law won’t erase the millions of dollars that at-risk renters already owe landlords. L.A. tenant advocates are looking into alternatives, such as creating a mom-and-pop landlord fund, for instance.
But progress is slow and any funds potentially available aren’t enough to cover all of L.A.’s rental debt, they said.
Faizah Malik, an attorney, said she has concerns about any proposed rental relief programs moving forward. Malik works for Public Counsel, a nonprofit pro bono organization that has sued the state over its rental relief program.
“We do have a ticking clock on rental debt and evictions for that debt in the city of L.A.,” Malik said. “We have a lot of concerns about how rental assistance programs are being set up. The most efficient way to handle the rent debt would be to cancel it. That is the ultimate demand of the tenant movement.”
That remedy could change Cervantes’ life, enabling her to stay in her home.
“The home is the base of life for every human,” she said. “Here we can laugh, we can rest, we can cry. Having a home is a right, it’s not an option.”
WATCH RELATED: Statewide eviction moratorium extended through June 30, 2022